I received two forwarded messages from friends first thing this morning. You will have to wait for one at the end of this blog post. The other was an article just for my (and the staff's) information. The title of the article got my immediate attention: "A choir decided to go ahead with rehearsal. Now dozens of members have COVID-19 and two are dead." You can read the entire article here.
The status and statistics of this pandemic are changing constantly. Granted, this story did not take place in Northern Virginia. However, it did give me pause. That same week, after finally--finally!--resuming choir rehearsals for two weeks, I felt under the weather. On March 11 and 12, recommendations were much looser and more relaxed than they are now. I kept thinking about powering through, and doing the rehearsal. I felt utterly defeated by my poor health. What on earth else, after a four month hiatus, could possibly prevent choir from moving forward? But with the rumblings of Coronavirus and the stubborn symptoms, I just felt the need to cancel.
There must be something about the way singers breathe and project that made rehearsing so dangerous and deadly for this group in Seattle. I felt a shiver of gratitude at what turned out to be my serendipitous illness. It reminded me of a passage from The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom; certainly not in scale, but in perspective. Here is the excerpt:
The move to permanent quarters came the second week in October 1944. Betsie and I stared at the long gray front of Barracks 28. Half its windows had been broken and replaced with rags. A door in the center let us into a large room where two hundred or more women bent over knitting needles. On tables between them were piles of gray woolen socks.
Our noses told us, first, that the place was filthy. Somewhere plumbing had backed up, and the bedding was soiled and rancid. Then as our eyes adjusted to the gloom, we saw that there were no individual beds at all, but great square piers stacked three high, wedged side by side and end to end with an occasional narrow aisle slicing through.
We followed our guide single file to the center of a large block. She pointed to the second tier. To reach it we had to stand on the bottom level, haul ourselves up, and then crawl across three other straw-covered platforms to reach the one that we would share with—how many? The deck above us was too close to let us sit up. We lay back, struggling against the nausea that swept over us from the reeking straw. We could hear other women finding their places.
Suddenly I sat up, striking my head on the cross-slats above. Something had pinched my leg.
“Fleas!” I cried. “The place is swarming with them!
We scrambled across the platforms, heads low to avoid another bump, dropped down to the aisle, and edged our way to a patch of light.
"Betsie, how can we live in such a place?” I wailed.
"Show us how.” It was said so matter of factly it took me a second to realize she was praying. The distinction between prayer and the rest of life seemed to be vanishing for Betsie.
“Corrie!” she said excitedly. “In the Bible this morning. Where was it? Read that part again!”
I glanced down the long dim aisle to make sure no guard was in sight, then drew the Bible from its pouch. “It was in First Thessalonians,” I said. “Here it is: ‘Comfort the frightened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. . . .’”
“Go on,” said Betsie.
“Oh, yes. ‘To one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances—’”
“That’s it, Corrie! That’s His answer. ‘Give thanks in all circumstances!’ That’s what we can do. We can thank God for everything about this new barracks!”
I stared at her, then around me at the foul-aired room.
“Such as?” I said.
“Such as being assigned here together.”
I bit my lip. “Oh, yes, Lord Jesus!”
“Such as what you’re holding in your hands.”
I looked down at the Bible. “Thank You, dear Lord, that there was no inspection when we entered here! Thank You for all the women, here in this room, who will meet You in these pages.”
“Yes,” said Betsie. “Thank You for the very crowding here. Since we’re packed so close, that many more will hear!” She looked at me expectantly.
“Oh, all right,” I said. “Thank You for the jammed, crammed, packed, suffocating crowds.”
“Thank You,” Betsie went on, “for the fleas and for--"
This was too much. "Betsie, there's no way even God can make me grateful for a flea."
"'Give thanks in all circumstances,'" she quoted. "Fleas are part of this place where God has put us."
So we gave thanks for fleas.
At day’s end back at the barracks, we received our ladle of turnip soup. Then, as quickly as we could, Betsie and I made our way to the rear of the dormitory room, where we held our worship “service.” Back here a small lightbulb cast a wan yellow circle on the wall, allowing us to read the Bible. An ever larger group of women gathered.
They were services like no others, these times in Barracks 28. A meeting might include a recital in Latin by a group of Roman Catholics, a whispered hymn by some Lutherans, and a soft-voiced chant by Eastern Orthodox women. The women around us packed the platforms, hanging over the edges. Then either Betsie or I would open the Bible. Because only the Hollanders could understand the Dutch text, we would translate aloud in German. We would hear the words passed back along the aisles in French, Polish, Russian, Czech, back into Dutch. They were previews of heaven, these evenings beneath the lightbulb. I would know again that in darkness God’s truth shines most clear.
No guard ever came near us. So many women now wanted to join us that we held a second service after evening roll call. On the Lagerstrasse we were under rigid surveillance. It was the same in the center room of the barracks: half a dozen guards or camp police always present. Yet in the large dormitory room there was almost no supervision at all. We did not understand it.
. . .
One evening when I got back to the barracks, Betsie was waiting for me, eyes twinkling. “You know we’ve never understood why we had so much freedom in the big room,” she said. “I’ve found out.”
That afternoon, she said, there had been confusion in her knitting group about sock sizes, so they asked the supervisor to come and settle it.
“But she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t step through the door and neither would the guards. And you know why?” Betsie could not keep the triumph from her voice: “Because of the fleas!”
My mind rushed back to our first hour in this place. I remembered Betsie’s thanks to God for creatures I could see no use for.
The hymn Amazing Grace comes to mind. Not only does God's grace save our eternal souls, but He provides for our daily lives in ways that we may never understand.
I have just returned from Convergence, having recorded organ accompaniments for Holy Week. (I like to work ahead, but as this is either the fourth or fifth plan, and the decision was made midday today, I worked about as quickly as I could). Just now, as I write, a loud buzzer on my silenced phone startled me with the emergency message that Alexandria residents are to stay at home, with the single exception of what is absolutely essential.
From our solitude, we will gather virtually in the next weeks to remember Christ's sacrifice, and His victory over sin and death. In the mean time, we will wait for His second coming in this imperfect world. I want to encourage us all to look for and find the blessings where they are.
The second forwarded message was a much shorter excerpt based on The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis:
Satan: "I will cause anxiety, fear and panic. I will shut down business, schools, places of worship, and sports events. I will cause economic turmoil."
Jesus: "I will bring together neighbors, restore the family unit, I will bring dinner back to the kitchen table. I will help people slow down their lives and appreciate what really matters. I will teach my children to rely on me and not on the world. I will teach my children to trust me and not their money and material resources."
Enjoy the listening link below, and my prayers for health and abundant life go with each of you.
Amazing Grace. Charles Calotta, soloist. P.D.
The Hiding Place
Corrie ten Boom
Greetings from the inside of the four walls of the Lee household. You are all in our prayers for health and safety.
I think we're all learning a lot about ourselves these days: our priorities, our thresholds, our needs. Some of us have much more human contact in our homes than what we are used to, and others are lonely. Some of us are busier than ever, and our jobs have become a health vulnerability, and others are bored, looking to fill the time. We are all adjusting.
After nearly a year of musical plans that did not come to fruition, I confess I am a bit numb to change, which seems to be the one constant in my life. I deeply appreciate the patience, encouragement, and flexibility of the staff, all involved in the music ministry, and this parish. Giving into defeat and despondency might have been tempting, otherwise.
And why not just make it easy? Why bother rerouting at each new challenge?
Even as a musician, I roll my eyes at the rather self-congratulatory language used to justify arts education and arts funding. It always sounds corny to me. ("Music is the language of the soul.") At the same time, my husband and I make our livings as musicians, and certainly paid a lot of money to be able and qualified to do our jobs, scholarships notwithstanding. As a military musician, Rick never questions the value and importance of his work. He and his group are frequently repaid by words and tears of gratitude. As a church musician, and the grateful recipient of many years of great church music experiences, I don't doubt the importance of my work either. But in a time like this, is it really essential?
As Christians, we look to the Bible for direction and authority. To read the volume of search results on the topic of worship music in the Bible is to be occupied for a long time. The Scripture is full from beginning to end. Music is covered in narrative, command, invitation, personal prayer, exhortation.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, current research in neuroscience sheds some light on why music is so important to humans, and underscores the magnitude of this sacred gift. Without getting too technical, here's the Reader's Digest explanation. First, knowledge is embodied, meaning that information has to pass through the senses to be processed. While academic philosophy and colloquial usage have traditionally separated knowledge and feeling, intellect and emotion, the reality is that they are fully integrated functions of the brain. Second, we take in sensory information as it acts upon us, and understand through an "as-if," mimetic process. We entrain our thoughts to imagine ourselves as though they were engaged in what is conveyed to us sensually. This is how we understand each other socially. If I see your face fall, mine falls too, mimetically, in an effort to understand, by feeling, what it is you're feeling. Perhaps you see a pastoral or tropical landscape painting. Perhaps you imagine yourself there, but even before that, the horizontal line means rest to you, as though you were lying down, and the light colors, with smaller, shorter light rays, are easy on the eyes. In music, a rising line or high note may make you feel euphoric! Why? If you were very high, you might be floating or flying, or you might feel that you have transcended the earth, and thus your thoughts are drawn to the sacred. Thirdly, the sensory information immediately and pre-consciously makes changes in our physiology, tightening or loosening muscles, maintaining inner homeostasis in the presence of safety or danger. Fourth, and even more fascinating, is that this is a reciprocal relationship; anyone familiar with EMDR, dance therapy, yoga or similar practices, or walk and talk therapy knows that by retraining your physical reactions, you can learn to think differently and heal trauma.
When we make or listen to music, even alone, this complicated, pre-conscious process takes place in a millisecond. We take it in, and we physically entrain to it. Our physiology adapts to the sense data, whether it is exhilarating, calming, meditative, sad, or something else. Before we've even begun to make conscious associations and employ higher-level, "top-down" thoughts about interpretation, we have united empathetically with the music. This explains why we sometimes have visceral reactions we can't explain, immediately hating or rejecting some song or style. And it explains our fierce loyalty to the music we love. We've united with it in our whole being, and by extension, the others engaged in it. When the music is for worship, it becomes a prayer and a connection of our entire being to God. When we are together in corporate worship, the unity of heart and purpose is all-encompassing.
I remember having the realization at a young age that God did not have to make food (or anything else) good. It could have been some vitamin that we took to refuel. Instead, he made food a delight. He could have restricted our ability to connect with others or Him to conveyance of fact, and our relationship to Him could have been defined by duty. Instead, He gifted us with hints of His divine creativity and ways beyond our comprehension to love and be loved.
During this season of isolation, I hope you will enjoy the online musical offerings here at ctkfriendsofmusic.com; and I look forward to joining you all in worship and praise as soon as we can safely be back together.
a lenten meditation
My dad has brought many souls to Christ. One particular seeker accepted much of the Christian faith and witness, but got stuck at the doctrine of our sin nature. This individual just felt strongly that we are basically good, and the term "sinner" is extreme. My dad replied that, if we are honest with ourselves, we cannot say that every deed we've ever done, and every thought we've ever had, has been good, just and right. The individual conceded this point, and has continued to grow in faith in Christ over many years.
As we enter the season of Lent, sin and temptation take a front and center position in our liturgical focus. I find the variety of reactions to this interesting, especially as pertains to music. Parishioners asked a director colleague of mine, "Why does it seem like everything is in a minor key??" Ruffled, he replied, "Well, I mean, it's Lent." I know of a few families who returned to their Roman Catholic roots either temporarily or permanently, explicitly because they felt the Protestant denominations did not address Lent fully and properly. In general, however, I find that most of us get uncomfortable when we focus on our sin and temptations, and the suffering and sacrifice of Christ. Generally speaking, there is no mass mutiny on church music during Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas, where we joyfully celebrate the hope and fulfillment of God's promises.
I find a couple different approaches to be helpful in sorting this out: one is moderation; another is understanding who God is, and who He is to us. Philippians 4:5-7 (KJV) says,
5 Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.
6 Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.
7 And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
In terms of our understanding of Lent, I believe we should moderate between our more extreme tendencies, either to be overly self-deprecating, allowing shame to dictate our sense of ourselves; or to be prideful and glib about our sin, ignoring the heavier aspects of our faith, in favor of the parts that feel better. Often, the extreme we tend toward is driven by personality, and/or upbringing, which includes our respective understandings of theology. Some of us, by nature and nurture, identify more with justice and fairness; others, with compassion and grace. We probably attend the church that speaks to our comfort zone with that regard. By exercising moderation, and praying for wisdom, we may avoid falling into characterizing ourselves or God in a way that is dishonoring to Him.
This leads into the second approach that I find helpful in sorting out our attitudes toward Lent: understanding who God is, and who we are in relationship to Him. God is perfect and holy, and He sent His Son Jesus to be our Savior. We are His beloved creation, but we have estranged ourselves from Him through our sin (Romans 3:23). Truth and mercy characterize God's identity and ours. He is the perfect, sinless one, who is our eternal judge; but He lavished His mercy and love on us, "in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). We are separate from God because of our sin, but we are sought by Him, infinitely loved by Him, cherished by Him, saved by Him. It is not His will that any one of us should perish (2 Peter 3:9).
Thus, to believe on the one hand that God is an angry punisher, or on the other, that His merciful sacrifice was not a big deal, is to greatly dishonor Him. Likewise, to believe that we are worthless, shameful beings on the one hand, or basically good people with no need of salvation, not only dishonors God, but it dishonors Christ's sacrifice, and dishonors ourselves as His beloved children. God alone holds the tension between justice and mercy perfectly. To understand this more is to understand Him more.
Circling back to music during Lent: not every song or hymn will be in a minor key, that I can promise you. Music will overall be a bit more introspective, and as always, it will support the spoken word. It is my prayer that during this solemn season, your corporate worship and personal devotion will be filled with awareness of the gravity of Christ's sacrifice for us, the depth of God's love for us, and a renewed desire to live more fully to Him.
Director of Music and Worship, Christ the King Church Parish